AchieveKids celebrates 50 years of service

Annual 'Festival of Trees' raises funds, celebrates half-century of helping local kids

Christmas came early in Palo Alto this year at the Festival of Trees, a charity event held at the Palo Alto Hills Country Club Thursday, at which specially decorated Christmas trees were auctioned off to raise funds for AchieveKids, an organization celebrating its 50th anniversary of supporting children with mental or emotional disabilities.

While attendees munched, socialized and perused the holiday decorations, AchieveKids students provided entertainment, with five kids performing the poem "Don't Yell at Me!" and one boy playing the piano. The event was co-sponsored by the Peninsula Children's Auxiliary.

AchieveKids, located in Palo Alto on Middlefield Road and in East San Jose, offers a variety of special-education and mental health services to teach children with mental disabilities how to communicate and live independently.

"It's all communication," AchieveKids Executive Director Michael Gennette said. "We teach them to express what their needs are."

AchieveKids classes take students who cannot be taught in public schools due to communication or behavioral barriers. At AchieveKids, children find comfort from teachers trained to assist in communication, and a classroom where they fit in, Gennette said. The goal of the program is to give children the ability to communicate and learn within a public school if they ever wish to return.

Decades ago programs such as AchieveKids were difficult to find and often only covered a particular type of disability, according to the organization. In the mid-1990s, the nonprofit Peninsula Children's Center merged with Zonta Children's Services to form what is now AchieveKids. Gennette said that the Peninsula Children's Center dealt with a diverse group of mental disabilities, while the Zonta Children's Services focused on autistic children. Their combined efforts have expanded their influence to better serve the needs of the community and help more children find their independence.

"Not many of these kinds of organizations make it this far, and our success has not been due to lack of challenges," Gennette said. "We're fortunate having a dedicated and committed volunteer community."

One such volunteer is Maureen Collins, mother of AchieveKids graduate John Collins. After seeing how the program helped her son to become independent, Collins continues to donate her time and money.

"It made such a difference in his life; it started him on the road to success," Collins said. "I can't tell you how indebted I feel towards them."

Through vocational training, AchieveKids helps their students learn real world skills. John Collins has his own apartment now and works two part-time jobs.

In past years the Festival of Trees has raised more than $2 million for AchieveKids. The idea originated with Jane Yates and Judi Beisler, who attended a workshop in Columbus, Ohio, and brought the tradition to Palo Alto as a way of supporting community charities. They provide Christmas trees and ask volunteers to donate time and materials to creating the holiday creations raffled off at the event.

With the money raised AchieveKids hopes to strengthen its school programs and increase its capacity to serve families and children. Currently, the organization has plans to add a third location in San Mateo County. A strong financial base will aid the staff in keeping their methods current with new findings in the mental health field.

"We have evolved over 50 years to continue to be relevant," Gennette said, "and we'll continue to assess the needs of the community."

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